Ashley Day is a West End star who knows about diversity in his roles. Having played a Mormon, a man made of liquorice and a cowboy, he is now turning his hand to Shakespeare in Opera North’s revival of Cole Porter’s classic musical, ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, which is heading out on tour this autumn.
Ashley started his career with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, before joining the original London cast of Mary Poppins, following the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz and winning an award for his portrayal of Elder Price in the West End phenomenon, The Book of Mormon. After six months on the road in the recent tour of Oklahoma, Ashely is now in rehearsals with Opera North.
Opera North’s production of this Cole Porter classic features a hybrid of talent, combining established musical theatre performers with classically trained opera singers, all of which comes together to make an original and lavish presentation of the show, which seamlessly blends the two styles into one highly entertaining and light hearted evening.
Ashely very kindly took time out from rehearsals to speak to The Gay UK about ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, Cole Porter, Jukebox Musicals, working with Matthew Bourne and why he is missing wearing a cowboy hat.
TGUK – You’re currently in rehearsal with Opera North for their forthcoming tour of Cole Porter’s ‘Kiss Me, Kate’. How are the rehearsals going?
AD – They’re going really well, thank you. We’ve just started rehearsing act two; and we are four weeks into the seven-week rehearsal period. The way in which the opera company rehearses is very different to the usual way rehearsals take place in musical theatre. For a start, there is a set that we use in these rehearsals, which really is a luxury. Normally, it just takes place in a rehearsal room with marks on the floor where the sets are going to be, so it is so good to get used to the actual set itself and to see how everything fits in.
TGUK – Can you tell us a little about the story behind ‘Kiss Me, Kate’?
AD – ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ is a comedy about the drama that happens both on stage and behind the scenes of a touring theatre company who are putting on a production of The Taming Of The Shrew. It was written by Cole Porter and focuses on the relationship between Frederick Graham, who is the director, producer and star of the [fictional] show, and his co-star and ex-wife Lilli. Fred lands in trouble when another actor, Bill, signs off an IOU to a casino in his name. Bill is an actor who is a gambler and a bit of a bad boy, who is only in the production to be with his girlfriend who is also in the cast, and not because he has any real love of the theatre; it’s all about keeping his girl happy. It’s when Bill signs of an IOU in a casino under Fred’s name which is where the drama starts. The financial pressures put the relationship of Frederick and Lilli under strain both on and off stage and the show is about what happens between the various cast members in the fallout from Bill’s actions. It’s quite funny to be in something that has its main story portraying both what is on stage and what’s going off behind the wings. It’s really fun to see the flipside of a production, things that normally only we get to see as actors. It’s a really fun musical to be in and to watch.
TGUK – What do you think is the enduring appeal of these types of musicals; and of the music of composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin?
AD – They are a real form of escapism. For me personally, it doesn’t matter what mood I am in, I always feel better when I’ve been to see a good show. It really enhances you. ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ is one of those shows that will have you coming out of the theatre on a high because it is such an upbeat show which is full of comedy. It’s a much more subtle comedy than something, say, like The Book Of Mormon or Avenue Q. When I was in The Book Of Mormon, I could always hear huge belly laughs from the audience, whereas ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ is a more genteel comedy from a more traditional and old-fashioned world. It finds comedy in the situation and not through shock value. In terms of the music, Cole Porter is a master of his art. The songs are simply beautiful. The tunes and melodies just can’t be beaten and I think that part of the reason why they are still so loved is because they evoke such memories in people. People hear them and it takes them back to a particular place or time or reminds them of when they first heard them. They are like musical comfort food.
TGUK – How do you choose your roles, and what led you to work with Opera North on this production?
AD – Opera North announced that they were doing this show and, straightaway, I knew that I wanted to do it. I originally saw it advertised on the website and contacted my agent saying that it was a production that I really wanted to do. It’s a show that I’d seen years ago and I knew that the role [of Bill] was right up my street. I knew, at that time, that I would be doing “Oklahoma!” for a six-month tour, but that as that ended; rehearsals for ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ would be starting, so it would fit in perfectly. Having taken on the role of Curly in “Oklahoma!”, as much as I loved the character, it was a very taxing role to play, with a lot of time on stage and some big numbers. The role of Bill, despite being one of the main characters in this show, is not quite as demanding as the role of Curly, so it’s nice not to have that intensity, but still be in a role which I really enjoy.
TGUK – What does working with an opera company bring to a musical production over and above working with a musical theatre company?
AD – I worked with the English National Opera in their production of “On The Town” previously, so I have been lucky enough to work with opera singers before, and working with Opera North is, so far, a very similar experience. Musical theatre is often very text driven and will always drive and push the text forward, whereas an opera company will push on how the production sounds and places a significant emphasis on the quality of what people hear. In musical theatre you strive to always deliver the message of what the lyricist is trying to say, and if it involves hitting a bum note intentionally as part of the song, then I’m happy to do that. Opera is much more focused on the sound that is produced by these talented singers. There are distinct differences in the techniques of opera singing and musical theatre singing and I think that in this production, those two styles merge together incredibly well.
TGUK – How did it make you feel when you first sang an ensemble piece with the company?
AD – Well, there is always the worry that you aren’t a classically trained opera singer working under their umbrella, but you have to realise that you are there for a reason; and that your particular role needs the skills that you have as a musical theatre performer. But regardless of the disciplines that the performers come from, it sounds incredible when we all sing together.
TGUK – ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ was written by Cole Porter as a direct response to the success of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” Having hung up the chaps and cowboy hat after such a long tour, are you missing them?
AD – [Laughs]…. I am. I am missing them. There is a line in ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, which is about cowboys, and that was the direct nod to “Oklahoma!” I love the role of Curly. When the role came up I contacted my agent and said I really wanted to do it. It’s such an iconic role, and such a huge male role which was not necessarily written for a younger actor, but I knew that it was something I wanted to do. The book that the show is based on is great, I was able to do the ballet at the end of act one and although it was busy and tough; it provided me with the kind of challenging daily performance that I thrive off.
TGUK – Do you prefer life on tour or life in the West End?
AD – The West End; without a doubt. My home, my family and my friends are in London. It’s a lot easier to have people around you that you know and love. Touring is really tough. I’ve learnt to drive, albeit badly, which makes things a bit easier. Before I could drive, there were endless hours of waiting around for trains to arrive in desolate stations. There is something much easier about being at home.
TGUK – You were part of the original London cast of The Book of Mormon, and frequently played the lead role of Elder Price. Was it rather surreal being swept up in that type of huge success?
AD – Playing Elder Price all happened very quickly. I knew that it was my job to step in as the understudy when the lead actor couldn’t take the role. My first time playing the lead was fairly early on in the run. It wasn’t frightening; I just got on with it. I spent an incredible two years in that production which was such a ground-breaking musical. The fans were simply amazing. To have a show that sold out every night is such a great feeling. We all knew that it would run, but no one knew how much of a success it was going to be. It was huge and it still is. Broadway hasn’t seen anything like it for years. It still sells out every show. Even with something that has such hype surrounding it, you never quite know how it will go down. It was simply incredible, unlike anything I have ever done before.
TGUK – Establishing a role as part of the original cast of a new show comes with its pressures, but do you feel under different pressures when taking established roles, such as Curly in “Oklahoma!” knowing that some audience members have their own affinity with and expectations of the character?
AD – No, if you step into a new show, whether it’s a brand-new production or a revival, you still have the same pressure of making it as good as you can possibly make it; and of putting your own stamp on it. You hope that you can add to what people have seen before. You can’t control people’s expectations. Everyone has their own opinion and everyone’s opinions are different. If people like it, then that’s great, but if not, there is very little I can do about that. All I can do is deliver something where I have put the work in and hope that people appreciate it. When I did interviews for “Oklahoma!”, people of often mentioned Hugh Jackman playing the role of Curly a few years ago in Sir Trevor Nunn’s production. At the time, Hugh was a working actor just like I am, he took the role and he made it his own. That’s what I try to do. I didn’t want to copy him because people associated his performance with the role. I wanted to try to make the role my own and hoped that I could give the audience not only what they expect from the character, but hopefully give them a little something extra as well.
TGUK – And if people don’t like your performance, how do you take negative criticism?
AD – I don’t tend to look at reviews. All reviewers have their own opinion and you can’t help if people don’t like what you’ve produced. These days, with social media, it’s very easy to see reviews because people will often send you a link to it on Twitter and you’ll open it. In some ways, as an actor, getting a bad review can be good for you, because it makes you realise that everyone doesn’t love you and reviews which aren’t positive can be helpful, because they can guide you as to what you might be able to do to enhance your performance. I take the view that you can’t win everybody 100% of the time, so you just have to do your best.
TGUK – You trained in ballet and worked with Matthew Bourne, playing The Liquorice Man in Nutcracker! What was the experience of working with New Adventures like?
AD – It was amazing. It was my way into the industry. I wanted to do musicals; but to do a production with one of the best dance companies in the world was an amazing start. They have the most talented directors and choreographers working for that company. I was 17, I was a sponge, I was taking anything and everything on board and taking it as a huge learning curve. I was simply absorbing everything that was taught to us. It was an amazing way to start my career, leading me to tour in Japan; and subsequently leading me into Mary Poppins. Matthew Bourne worked with Disney and Cameron Mackintosh on Mary Poppins and for an actor to get a role in a Cameron Mackintosh production is sensational, but for me to be able to get my second professional role in a Cameron Mackintosh production was something I could never have imagined.
TGUK – Are you interested in returning to the world of narrative dance or are you currently content with combining your talent for singing, dancing and acting?
AD – I do love New Adventures and Matthew’s work. Every time I watch his shows, it’s like “wow”, and a little tiny percentage of me wishes that I still did it. However, I love doing what I’m doing and I am lucky because the roles that I have taken do include a lot of dancing. My mum loves to see me dance. I know that she is looking forward to ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ because I get to do a lot of tap dancing. My passion was always to sing dance and act; you don’t get to sing in narrative dance….. I like to use my voice too much!
TGUK – There are been a lot of productions recently where minor celebrities or people from reality shows are placed in leading roles. As someone who was learnt and honed their skills over number of years, what are your thoughts on that?
AD – There are occasions, if I lose out on a role when I think I would have been able to do it better, then it can be frustrating. However, just because they’re known to the public doesn’t mean that it makes life any easier for them. Working in the theatre is tough, regardless of your background. Not everyone who comes off of the back of a reality show is offered a job and, if those who do get the job can’t do it, then it will be so hard on them that they either won’t want to do another role, or, they simply won’t get one. It can be gruelling. You have to get up and perform to the best of your ability regardless of how you feel and if you can’t, then you simply won’t last.
TGUK – Do you feel that you have an advantage having worked your way from the chorus line to the leading man?
AD – Absolutely, I have done various jobs within a company, such as swing, chorus, ensemble and so on; and I have seen how the responsibilities can completely change from one role within a company to another. It’s good to know how each role works and how the company fits together using each of these individual roles. It’s almost like putting together a jigsaw using the different parts to make a production whole.
TGUK – What are your thoughts on the rise of the jukebox musical, and do you think these productions will have the longevity of book musical shows such as ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, High Society or West Side Story?
AD – Not every old fashioned musical is good. There are those which are really good, and there are those which aren’t. I think that the success of a production depends on many things. There are some old fashioned musicals that will always be loved, but there are those that are successful or enduring as a result of not only the writing, but also the artistry of the musical, the production and how it’s all put together. Equally, there are jukebox musicals which will do incredibly well but there are those which simply won’t capture the public’s imagination. I think the main difference is that the old fashioned musicals tend to be a story with songs written into them, whereas a jukebox musical tends to be a story written around a collection of songs. I think that the quality of the narrative will have a significant impact on a production’s success.
TGUK – If you had an unlimited budget, which musical would you revive tomorrow?
AD – [Laughs and pauses] Erm…. That’s a really difficult question. [Pauses a little more] ….. I think it would have to be [pauses for thought] ….Crazy For You…… but only if I could play the lead
TGUK – It’s your musical, you can play who you want!
AD – [Laughs] Then I’ll play the lead! They did revive it a few years ago and it was really successful but I think, off the top of my head; that would be the one that I would choose.
TGUK – And once you’ve finished touring with ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, what are you planning next?
AD – I’m doing panto this year, playing Prince Charming in Cinderella at Plymouth Theatre Royal, staring alongside Gok Wan, which will be great fun. After that I plan to pack my backpack and trek around Asia. I’ve been working virtually solidly for 3 ½ years and I’m ready for a break, and Asia seems the perfect place to take some time out.
Ashley Day can be seen in Opera North’s forthcoming production of ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, which opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on the 21st September 2015, before heading out on tour, calling at Newcastle, Manchester and Nottingham. For details and tickets, visit www.kissmekatethemusical.co.uk/ and follow Opera North on Twitter (@Opera_North) or on Facebook.
You can follow Ashley Day on Twitter (@Ashleyday¬_86) or on Facebook.